Saikaka Ichidai Onna

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(The Life of Oharu)

Japan, 1952

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Production: Shintoho; black and white, 35mm; running time: 148 minutes originally, cut to 133 minutes; length: 13,339 feet originally, cut to 11,970 feet. Released 1952.

Producers: Hideo Koi, Yoshikata Yoda, and Kenji Mizoguchi; screenplay: Yoshikata Yoda and Kenji Mizoguchi, from the novelKoshuku ichidai onna by Saikaku Ihara; photography: Yoshimi Hirano; editor: Toshio Goto; art director: Hiroshi Mizutani; music: Ichiro Saito; historical consultant: Isamu Yoshi.

Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka (Oharu); Toshiro Mifune (Katsunosuke); Hisako Yamane (Lady Matsudaira); Yuriko Hamada (Yoshioka); Tsukie Matsura (Tomo, Oharu's mother); Ichiro Sugai (Shinzaemon, Oharu's father); Toshiaki Konoe (Lord Tokitaka Matsudaira); Jukichi Uno (Yakichi Senya); Eitaro Shindo (Kohei Sasaya); Akira Oizumi (Fumikichi, Sasaya's friend); Masao Shimizu (Kikuno Koji); Daisuke Kato (Tasaburo Hishiya); Toranosuke Ogawa (Yataemon Isobei); Eijiro Yanagi (Daimo Enaka); Hiroshi Oizumi (Manager Bunkichi); Haruo Ichikawa (Iwabashi); Kikue Mori (Myokai, the old nun); Chieko Hagashiyama; Sadako Sawamura.

Awards: Venice Film Festival, International Prize, 1952.



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Il cinema di Kenji Mizoguchi, Venice, 1980.

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* * *

The Life of Oharu is surely Kenji Mizoguchi's most important film. Artistically it ended a series of critical failures and indicates the half-dozen masterpieces that close his career. Financially it ultimately made enough money to land Mizoguchi a carte blanche contract with Daiei films, resulting in the artistic freedom he enjoyed at the end. Critically, Oharu marks the recognition of Mizoguchi by the West for the film captured top prize at the Venice Film Festival and made him a cult hero of Cahiers du Cinéma. Mizoguchi may have made more perfect films (Westerners prefer Ugetsu monogatari; the Japanese choose Crucified Lovers), but seldom has a film meant so much to a director and his future.

Beyond these practical considerations, Oharu was, of all his films, the one he struggled the longest to get on the screen. The idea of adapting Saikaku's 17th-century picaresque classic came to him at the beginning of the war, and he actively sought to produce it once the war had ended. But American restrictions against historical subjects and the evident expense this film would entail frightened all the studios he approached.

When the Americans pulled out of Japan in 1950, Mizoguchi could count eight films made during the occupation, not one of which satisfied him or pleased the critics. He needed a big success more than ever. While shooting the last of these films, he was galled to learn that Akira Kurosawa had received the top prize at Venice for Rashomon. How could a young director with only a handful of films and little personal experience win such a prize? In a rare interview Mizoguchi claimed that he had cut down his drinking to extend his life so that he could make at least one great film. No artist, he felt, achieved anything truly great until after he was 50. Mizoguchi was 52 when he said this, and it was clear that from then on he would waste no more time. He wanted greatness. His ambition was matched by that of his longtime leading actress, Kinuyo Tanaka, whose trip to the United States had halted a skid in her artistic reputation. Mizoguchi had been appalled at the gaudy welcome she received at the airport on her return. He shamed her into working with him, and together they agreed to risk their careers on this film.

Mizoguchi was able to subcontract the film from a newly established company through Shin Toho, assuring it some distribution, though he would have no studio at his disposal for its production. Filming took place in a bombed-out park midway between Kyoto and Osaka. Every 15 minutes a train between these cities passed nearby, the noise allowing for no more than one of Mizoguchi's invariably long takes at a time; to Mizoguchi the idea of dubbing was unacceptable. Planning went on for days, since he refused to begin until his crane arrived from Kyoto, and until his assistants returned from museums, where they were trying to secure authentic props to replace the copies which had already been prepared. The concentration on the set was legendary. When his chief assistant argued with him over a problem in which Mizoguchi was clearly being unreasonable, he fired the assistant. After an unexpected snowfall he had 30 men spend an exhausting 3 hours clearing it away, only to scrap the proposed site when he noticed a snowcapped peak in the background.

The film took months to complete and cost 46 million yen. Japan had never seen a film to match its scope and rigor; it was perhaps too taxing a film for Japanese audiences. The intellectuals complained that Mizoguchi had lost Saikaku's irony and humor in his realistic and sympathetic treatment of Oharu. The populace was no doubt frustrated by its length, tempo, and inevitability. The film virtually sank Shintoho, but the critics continued to discuss it. While it placed only 9th on the annual list of Japan's 10 best films, it was selected to represent the country at Venice, where it stunned the jury who awarded it the grand prize.

What made the film so exceptional was the camera perspective which was omniscient yet sympathetic. As Oharu descends from a privileged life at court down the ladder to the untouchable, nameless, mendicant nun at the end, she achieves nobility and wisdom. Where Saikaku had parodied her erotic exploits and used her to satirize all levels of Tokugawa culture, Mizoguchi finds her odyssey painful and sacred. She is the purest of all his sacrificing women who suffer at the hands of a male world not worthy of them.

This hagiographic tone is felt in the incredible camera flourishes that terminate so many sequences. The falling of the camera away from the beheading of Toshiro is the most hysterical fall; indeed, its point of rest is a perfect composition, including the sword still glistening from its bloody work. When the family flees in exile from the court, the camera coolly watches them cross the bridge, only to dip under the bridge at the last moment and catch a final glimpse of them passing a single tree far away. The graceful movement here serves to keep the subject in view, but more importantly, it is the melancholy reaction of an observer to a woeful tale. In the final shot Oharu, bowing to the temple, passes out of the frame, allowing the camera to hold on to that temple in a sacramental finale that comprehends a life gone so low it is now forever out of view. Long and solemn, The Life of Oharu is an immensely mature work of art.

—Dudley Andrew